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Dark skinned woman with short curly hair wearing a black atheltic shirt sits with her eyes closed and palms pressed together in meditation or prayer as part of a yoga therapy practice to improve her mental health

Yoga Therapy: Using movement to navigate mental health

anxiety depression health help holistic yoga therapy inclusive recovery inclusive therapy lgbtq2sia mental health yoga therapy yoga toronto May 09, 2022

This blog was written for Haven Therapeutic Massage. Through my blogs and related social media posts, I will explore how we can use the ethics of Yoga, personal practice, movement, breath, focused attention, and meditation to create recovery spaces that are inclusive and reflective of diverse lived experience. Join in the conversation on Instagram by following along @holisticyogatherapist and @haventherapeuticmassage

What are the benefits of seeing a yoga therapist vs attending a yoga class?

There are a range of benefits to incorporating the practice of yoga into how you care for yourself. 

You should consider seeing an accredited yoga therapist (look for the letters C-IAYT after their name) if you are looking for a guide or mentor on your journey of pain relief, reconnecting with your body, breath and mind, and eventual self-discovery. Your yoga therapist can help with:

  • Chronic pain, including low-back pain, arthritis, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and other types of pain such as that associated with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Mental health, including concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma and PTSD, insomnia, and others
  • Neurological issues and complications of stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Support for illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Overall well-being (you don’t need to be sick or in pain for yoga therapy to have value!) and healthy aging

Yoga therapists have at least 1000 hours of in-depth training to help them assess and keep you safe. This training includes learning how to adapt yoga for specific conditions and populations, the integration of Ayurvedic principles, and supervised clinical experience with students. Your yoga therapist has also completed an advanced study of anatomy and physiology and has basic knowledge of disease and mental health disorders, as viewed through a Western lens. This enables them to work with you to address your specific goals while considering any limitations you might experience.

Your yoga therapist will offer you tools to use as you're ready as part of a customized practice that they develop in collaboration with you and your care team. This practice could include:

  • Movement ranging from gentle to vigorous
  • Breathing techniques
  • Meditation or visualization practices
  • Physical postures that address specific areas of discomfort or musculoskeletal imbalances
  • Any combination of tools like these!

It is designed to help you meet your short, medium and long term goals and specifically applies yogic tools—postures/exercises, breathwork, meditation techniques, and more—to address your physical, mental, and emotional needs. Your yoga therapist will also give you homework - including daily rituals, movement and breath work, and will measure your progress towards your goals.

You should consider attending a yoga class with an experienced registered yoga teacher (look for the letters E-RYT after their name) if you're looking for a general movement and exercise practice to help ease everyday aches, pains, but that is not customized or tailored for you. A Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) credential is earned by yoga teachers whose training and teaching experience meet Yoga Alliance standards. They usually have completed training with and receive confirmation from a Registered Yoga School (RYS) at the 200 or 500-hour level and complete 30 hours of Continuing Education every three years. The benefits of attending a yoga class include the chance to practice in community, and be guided in a specific style of practice. Your yoga teacher will not give you homework, your progress is yours to assess, and you can explore what you need to build your practice.


How can yoga therapy help manage my symptoms of anxiety?

A 2013 study found that one month intervention of yoga therapy, there was a significant decrease in anxiety and depression scores, as well as improved quality-of-life among the participants in the yoga group as compared with the control group. Yoga therapy can help manage symptoms of anxiety by using a range of yogic practices to help regulate your nervous system. Your yoga therapist will work with you to design a customized practice that gradually increases your sense of relaxation in mind and body. 

Since anxiety often produces a sense of being outside of our bodies and outside of the moment, your yoga therapy practice might be focused on creating a sense of embodiment and connection to the present moment. Your yoga therapist might offer you ways to use movement, breath, chanting and visualization to create a sort of safe space that can help ease the sense of being out of control and to help you return to a more connected state. Practices might include:

  • Body-Awareness Exercises where you draw your attention to different areas of the body in sequence and notice sensation without judgment as a way to help make the body the anchor for the mind while encouraging relaxation
  • Breaths practice where your might synchronize your movements with your breath, to help deepen your inhalation and exhalation which improves quality and helps move your nervous system to a relaxation response.This can also help ease the sense of tightness in the chest, or shortness of breath that can accompany anxiety.
  • Guided Imagery which is an evidence-based tool for relieving anxiety. Your yoga therapist might offer you nature-based guided imagery, or another practice that resonates as an effective intervention to help you reconnect with your mind and body.
  • Meditation with a Mudra which can have immediate energetic effects because the simple hand gesture becomes a focal point for body, breath and mind, while it helps to calm and quiet the mind and nervous system.
  • Static shapes with an Affirmation which combines a bhavana, a yogic contemplation or vision or what you might know as a positive affirmation while holding a specific asana or shape. This helps restore the body mind connection. Commonly used affirmations to help with anxiety include: I am supported, I am present, or I am calm.

Please remember, however, that yoga therapy is a complementary approach for mental-health conditions and should be used as part of a care plan that includes appropriate counselling and other interventions.


I'm nervous to start a yoga practice as a queer person, how can yoga therapy make me feel safe? 

Yoga therapists are aware that ongoing stress and traumatic experiences can lead to feeling disconnected from the body, being stuck in a hypervigilant or dissociated space, and sensing that the body is not a safe place to be. It can be a deeply supportive practice for LGBTQIA2S+ people who would like to be in better relationship with their bodies, and improve their overall sense of connection and wellbeing. This is because the yoga therapy practice begins with the understanding of people as inherently whole regardless of the symptoms that prompt them to seek support. This biopsychosocial-spiritual modality recognizes symptoms as part of a holistic picture and offers adaptive practice to support healing, embodiment, and well-being. 

Research continues to highlight the need for, and importance of culturally competent healthcare for LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community) people and the negative health outcomes that result from lack of access to such care. This is an area where yoga therapists can be especially helpful since the practice is fundamentally about supporting embodiment and well-being/ C-IAYT Yoga Therapists receive training that includes biomedical, psychological, and yogic knowledge, along with an ethical and values based approach that includes the awareness, skills, and capacity to minimize the risk of causing additional harm in spite of good intentions. 

Your yoga therapist does this by continuing to develop their capacity for cultural humility, cultural competence, and a trauma-informed approach that encompasses awareness of systemic harm, their own positionality and social location, and the power dynamics inherent within the therapeutic relationship. In addition, your yoga therapist recognizes you as the expert in your experience and approaches your work together from a collaborative space, instead of a prescriptive one.


How do I know if yoga therapy is right for me?

The most effective way is to consult with a yoga therapist, or a few yoga therapists in order to find one who feels like a good fit for you. You can start your search for a local yoga therapist here:  Most yoga therapists offer short free consultations where they will share their approach to how they work, and will invite you to share your short, medium and long term goals. Following that conversation, you can decide if you would like to work with them, or seek support elsewhere. 

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